Congressional GOP warming up to Hagel

Republicans in both chambers are warming up to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, six weeks after his contentious confirmation battle.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who called on senators to oppose Hagel’s nomination, gave him an A grade for his performance so far. 

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“I feel very good about him at this point … I like his demeanor, I like what he says, and I like the way he he’s acting” as Pentagon chief, McKeon said in an interview with C-SPAN on Friday. 

“I have just been very impressed,” added McKeon, who said Hagel sent him a hand-written note to thank him for his insights during last Thursday’s hearing on the Pentagon’s budget.

“He doesn’t need to do those sorts of things, but he does them,” McKeon said. 

The gesture is part of a charm offensive Hagel and his department have undertaken since his confirmation fight. 

Hagel “has made a concerted effort to [build] … good relationships with Congress,” a senior defense official told The Hill. 

“He has tried to do that in various ways,” the official added. “He believes that this is the right thing to do.” 

Signs that Hagel’s efforts are working go beyond McKeon. 

“So far, so good,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said of Hagel’s tenure. 

Graham added that he supported the way Hagel was handing the growing crisis in North Korea and the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan. 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said it was “still too early to tell” if Hagel has done enough to bring Senate Republicans around to his side. 

“I [still] do not think he handled his confirmation … that well, but [Hagel] is a good guy and his heart is in the right place,” Chambliss said. 

Hagel had a memorably tough confirmation, with Republicans filibustering his nomination. 

Only four GOP senators voted to confirm Hagel, who until 2008 was a member of the Senate Republican Conference. 

A number of Republicans complained about his past statements on Israel and Iran, with Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) arguing Iran supported Hagel’s nomination. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) highlighted paid speeches Hagel had given, suggesting that groups backed by Saudi Arabia or North Korea might have funded them.

Hagel also didn’t help himself during a confirmation hearing in which he misspoke about the U.S. policy of containment on Iran and battled with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over the Iraq troop surge. 

The senior defense officials said the fight is “not out of the review view mirror yet, but the goal is to get past it.” 

Hagel and Pentagon leaders are stressing the point that in cases of defense and national security, lawmakers and the Defense Department are on the same side. 

The new defense secretary seemed more comfortable testifying before McKeon’s committee last week than he did during his confirmation. 

“Actually, I like these things,” Hagel said after the hearing, which lasted three and a half hours. 

“Sometimes it’s not pleasant, but nonetheless it’s important,” he said. 

Several Republicans said they believed Hagel remained the wrong pick for the Pentagon. 

“It is nothing personal, but I [still] think he is the wrong guy for the job,” Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (Texas) told The Hill on Wednesday. 

“The Obama administration and Secretary Hagel are going to end up hollowing out our military. That seems to be the only sector of the government they seem willing to cut,” Cornyn said.

McCain characterized the connection between Hagel and Senate Republicans as a “professional relationship,” adding that despite their differences, “it is my job to work with him.”

And Graham, who voted against confirming Hagel, stopped short of saying he had changed his mind. 

“I don’t know where he is going to be” on the Pentagon’s postwar planning for Afghanistan, Graham said, noting his concern over the Pentagon’s decision not to intervene in the Syrian civil war.